Happy Halloween! Stay safe and be aware that plague doctor outfits may have become annoying to your neighbors if you’ve been wearing them since early 2020 like I definitely haven’t been.
Anyway, welcome to the Lightning Round! Today we’ll be looking at Valachan, Cyre 1313, and nearly half a dozen other minor Domains. These last few are great for one-shots by the way, if you’re looking for last-minute Halloween game ideas (though I’d personally recommend just running Tomb of Horrors – great time for a Halloween game).
Click through for the Hunt and the rest of the Lightning Rail Round!
Here’s our scale one last time – do note that there are a few changes when judging the mini-Domains, which are detailed just before I start talking about them.
- S Rank – The best of the best. Mostly reserved for Strahd.
- A Rank – Brilliant ideas executed perfectly. High-quality content.
- B Rank – Good ideas with few flaws. Fantastic content, with a little work.
- C Rank – Decent ideas hobbled in some way. Good inspiration to build on.
- D Rank – Usable, but difficult for some reason. Ideas with issues.
Valachan vs Predator
Horror: Ever felt like something powerful and hungry was hunting you? Now you have!
Length: Anything up to a full campaign.
Cumulative Grade: A
To me, Valachan delivers on promises made by other Domains who ultimately just couldn’t quite scratch that particular itch. It offers jungle-based horror in a way Kalakeri couldn’t, and it explores “what makes a Darklord” better than Darkon. It also knocks it out of the park in having a vaguely sympathetic Darklord (something the Carnival struggled with), and kills it with the innately hostile environment theme that Bluetspur tried to create.
It’s a great Domain all around, easily up there with the other core Domains like Barovia, Falkovnia, Mordent, and so on. Valachan is a supporting pillar of the greater Ravenloft setting in a way that most other Domains just can’t quite manage.
Welcome to the jungle! And though they do have games, they definitely aren’t “fun” as most would define it. And now, lame jokes out of the way, we can talk about why Valachan is so damn good.
Firstly, it has an expertly crafted map. This is most noticable when you look at the Trial of Hearts (which we’ll talk about more in a second) – there are two options of where players can choose to go, and both are equally treacherous in completely different ways. They’re also roughly the same distance away from the starting point, with similar options as far as detours and shortcuts. Valachan feels like a Domain where a lot of thought went into the map, and that effort really benefits it as a whole.
Secondly, Valachan is frightening while not relying on any outright supernatural elements. Now yes, displacer beasts are magical and yes, the jungle actively trying to kill you by itself is as well. But ultimately the enemies you’ll face in Valachan are the same things you might face going to a particularly dangerous jungle in the real world. The predators might be empowered so as to stand toe-to-toe with magic-wielding adventurers… but they’re still recognizable creatures. Even the displacer beasts are essentially magic panthers. And this is remarkable because almost all of the other Domains make heavy use of supernatural evil as a threat. Which is fine! But having Valachan as an option is even better because of this difference – there are plots you can do in Valachan that you just can’t do elsewhere.
Another strength of the Domain is in its ties to its own genre. Much like Falkovnia or Mordent, Valachan has an absolute monopoly on its own genre. And while that genre might not be as wide as “zombie horror” or “the literal concept of haunting,” it’s still quite impressive. If you want to do a story about being lost in nature and hunted by a ruthless predator… Valachan is where you’ll want to be.
I could go on, but there’s one vital thing to mention when talking about Valachan, and that is the Trial of Hearts. It’s fantastic, and it plays into the narrative of the Domain so easily that it feels utterly natural. It also doesn’t distract from the Domain itself (like the plague mechanics from Richemulot did). It’s a purely additive feature. And as I mentioned above, the entire thing is brilliantly thought out. The game is “balanced” (to a degree) by Chakuna’s own sense of fair play, and because the various options available to contestants are all more or less equal in terms of danger. Your party can tailor their choices to their own strengths (taking the oceanic crossing path if they know they have a reliable, and fast, swim speed), but I really can’t think of anything that could totally trivialize it. Even the fly spell is only a limited boon, since no matter how fast it is there’s still the problem of being clearly visible to any flying predator who wants a bite. Also if the party is at a level where they can reliably cast fly on everyone frequently enough to make most of the trip by air… they were too strong for this place to begin with.
Essentially, Valachan is a perfect Domain for its genre. Normally it would suffer a bit from being just a little bit narrow, but I honestly don’t think it really is. Even if most stories will need to incorporate the “hunted” concept, I feel like there’s still enough variations and twists to keep things interesting and fun.
To begin, a short aside into what Chakuna says about the nature of Darklords in Ravenloft. She isn’t supposed to be the Darklord. At all. It’s supposed to be Urik von Kharkov, the big game hunter. But Chakuna beat him and usurped his role as Darklord. And that is fascinating.
Firstly, it means Chakuna is unique among Darklords for not having done anything wrong (I’m not counting Isolde and Nepenthe because their story is… odd). She didn’t murder innocents, she killed a monstrous murderer; she didn’t court dark powers, she reluctantly sacrificed her own self to keep the Domain from devouring everyone in it; she isn’t a sinner, but is now forced to become one.
We also have the curious case of von Kharkov. What was his torment from the Dark Powers, originally? It’s never stated. My own theory is that there wasn’t one, and Chakuna is his torment – he was allowed to enjoy his murderous playground to his heart’s content for years, just so it would hurt more when someone came along and stole it from him. To have that person be one of his favored prey, who beat him in fair combat no less, just adds to the agony. That she is forced to continue his own murderous hunts while not actually wanting to is insult to injury. That’s my own theory, but I like that it’s left open ended. It gives room for DMs to be creative, which is always good.
I should note here – I quite like her backstory as well. It has a lot of potential, depending on how much you want to go into it. You could craft a really solid colonial narrative here if you wanted. Von Kharkov is the outside force enforcing his will on an innocent, and comparatively powerless, native population. His disdain for them could easily be represented as a racial thing, and you could totally expand Chakuna’s character (and the players’ perception of her) by showing how she is, ultimately, just a woman who wanted to save her people. There are metaphors here for the problems with how empires handled the end of colonialism. Or you could keep it simple and focus on her current position as Valachan’s apex predator. The fact that you could do either with pretty much the same amount of work is awesome.
Anyway, Chakuna also has other elements that make her a great Darklord, mechanically speaking. One is her ability to show up multiple times – because she likes to “play with her food,” DMs can bring her in again and again without overwhelming players. She can show up to fight the party while holding back, only to withdraw either when the PCs manage to damage her enough, or just before landing the killing blow in order to hunt them further. This is great because it allows you to totally avoid the “wait, who is this guy?” problem. The final fight with Chakuna will be sweeter just for having struggled against her multiple times before.
Her one weakness is the fact that she pretty much can only serve as an antagonist. But I don’t think that’s her fault – it’s more a symptom of the genre. You wouldn’t stop to chat with the Predator, after all. And hey, compared to him or the xenomorph Chakuna actually has more interaction potential. In particular, to me it seems like there’s a narrative trend in her description that implies she’s becoming more and more cruel over time due to the influence of the Dark Powers. The position of Darklord is corrupting her, or perhaps the absence of her heart has made her literally heartless as mercy and compassion are slowly drained away. Either way, she has fascinating options available to her despite being an ultimately antagonistic force.
Advice and Final Thoughts
Valachan is a slasher film style of Domain. It revolves around action and tension, and those are the things you need to focus on.
For action, I’d recommend familiarizing yourself with the various beasts available in game. From there, I’d even recommend looking through the monstrosities and others to find things that could be reskinned as more natural animals. They would maintain their more supernatural abilities, like acid, but look less visually unnatural than, say, a manticore.
Tension can be a bit harder. For one, I would make sure players outright state their nightly watch cycles. I wouldn’t have an ambush attack every night (which can get tedious), but I’d definitely have it so most nights aren’t “safe.” A few nights can get interrupted by displacer beast attacks, but most should be smaller things. A watcher encountering a poisonous spider and needing to make a Dexterity save to swat it off, or a Constitution save to resist the toxin. Or maybe Chakuna finds them in the night. She clearly isn’t going to attack, but if someone notices her observation they can have advantage on the next day’s attempts to shake her pursuit.
Also, keep track of rations and supplies. Players should be able to forage food relatively easily, but this still takes time. You can also have this be another source of nighttime stress. Some events could reduce supplies – the watcher has to shoo away some monkeys before they steal any food, or can maybe sacrifice some supplies to head off a dangerous attack.
Finally… use Chakuna. She’s a great Darklord with endless possibilities to enrich your game mechanically and narratively. She’s too good of an antagonist to pass up. Make sure not to overuse her, but otherwise have her be very involved. The horror of Valachan is in the feeling of being hunted, and Chakuna is the ideal huntress.
One last note – remember the discussion about Darkon, and a campaign that spans multiple Domains? Valachan is a perfect stop on that tour thanks to the nature of Chakuna and von Kharkov. Darkon’s story is all about trying to replace an absentee Darklord – Chakuna has already done that. And Valachan reacted similarly to her attempt to end the Trial of Hearts as Darkon did to Azalin’s disappearance. Both Domains immediately sought to consume themselves the moment their link with the Darklord was severed. Chakuna managed to preserve Valachan by becoming the new Darklord – could one of the pretenders of Darkon do the same? Or does it only work in Valachan because of the Domain’s basic premise as the eternal set of a game of skill and cunning? Ultimately, Chakuna’s connection to Valachan could be an easy way to elaborate on the greater magical properties of the Domains of Dread.
And there we have it! All of the major Domains present and accounted for.
However, Van Richten’s doesn’t just end there. In addition to the main attractions, it also includes short summaries and suggestions for even more Domains!
I won’t go over all of them of course, there are way too many, but here are a couple of my favorites. Due to their size, I won’t separate them out by Domain and Darklord, but I will call out whenever I’m talking about each element.
We’ll also keep the old ratings system as well, though with the understanding that the “robust-ness” and point of interest density factors will be ignored. So these grades will primarily be on how much potential the Domain has, rather than its actual contents.
Cyre 1313, Strangers on a Mourning Train
Darklord: The Last Passenger
Horror: Inevitable doom mixed with a heavy dosage of classic “murder on the Orien Express” vibes.
Length: Probably just a one-off, though you could potentially do two or even three sessions depending on how long you make the train.
Companion Product: My own Report: Magic in Mourning
Cumulative Grade: A+
For non-Eberron fans, please note that “Orien express” is not a typo. For fans of Eberron, please know that I had to do it and have no regrets.
Anyway… Cyre 1313! It’s my favorite of the mini-Domains. This is quite possibly just the result of bias on my part, but I still feel like it’s a killer idea.
First off, the Domain itself. A train seems rather small for a setting, but I feel it emphasizes the horror elements of the narrative. You’re trapped in a small space with no escape because it’s hurtling along at railroad speeds. The train layout also offers an interesting progression option. Since the driving force of the train (a bound air elemental) is located at the front car, you can start players near the back and have the progression based around working their way forward.
Their progress could either be blocked by hostile creatures which need to be fought (delusional soldiers who believe they’re on a battlefield? cultists who think the train is headed to the depths of Khyber?), or it could be a situation where mysteries and puzzles play a larger role. Perhaps someone was murdered in the car, and the Orien employee with the key to the next car is refusing to let anyone leave until the murder is solved. Or maybe a fight between other people has broken out – a squad of Aundairian soldiers seated too close to a bunch of templars from Thrane. Players can either beat both sides into submission or find another solution.
I also quite like the suggested Darklord even despite the lack of description given. For one, “the Last Passenger” is a killer name. It sets up the mystery of the Domain perfectly. And even though it isn’t very specific, I feel like it has near endless potential. Is the Last Passenger potentially friendly? Do they have the power to allow people off of the train, or does the party have to find another way? And does the Last Passenger feel guilt for their actions? Do they even understand what they’ve done?
Advice and Final Thoughts
I would love to run Cyre 1313 as a horror game not obviously affiliated with Ravenloft in order to throw off my players (who are quite well-informed about all of this). The realization that they’re within the mists of Ravenloft would be a great twist.
Other than that, I think the key part of Cyre 1313 is determining who the Last Passenger is and why the players must confront them. My preferred options are having it be either a Cyran noble or a House Cannith artificer.
The Cyran noble (or royal!) would provide an interesting look into the consequences of power. If they had some sort of advance knowledge of the Mourning (or if it had already begun and was approaching), they might be the ones keeping the party on the train. They’re convinced the mists outside are the dead-gray mists of the Mourning and refuse to stop or open any doors or windows for fear it’ll seep in. Their status has been transformed by the Dark Powers into an almost supernatural control over the train’s engineers and attendants – they can’t disobey, so the only way out is to convince the noble to stop, or fight their way past them.
On the other hand, the Cannith artificer option is more magic focused. In this case, the high-ranking artificer has locked themselves in the engine room and is desperately trying to stop the train… but can’t, because they just can’t figure out how it’s still going. The bound elemental that normally propels the train has been twisted into an entity of necrotic energy, so it shouldn’t still be allowing the train to move. But it is, and that confounds and terrifies the Last Passenger.
In any case, Cyre 1313 is a narrow Domain (literally), but I think it has a lot of potential.
The Rider’s Bridge, Usable if You Pay the Head Toll
Darklord: The Headless Rider
Horror: Folk/ghost story style spookiness.
Length: You’d be lucky to stretch it to a single session, so just expect it to be one encounter.
Cumulative Grade: B+
This… really isn’t a Domain? But at the same time it kinda is, which is nice. I like the idea of a miniature Domain that can essentially “overwrite” a specific part of another Domain (IE a bridge). It’s kinda neat. It also offers a unique way to traverse Domains – players chase the Rider across the bridge to find themselves in a different Domain than they started in.
Ultimately, it’s more of a narrative device for the DM than it is a fully fledged Domain. But that’s fine! It works quite well for that specific purpose.
Advice and Final Thoughts
My real reason for including The Rider’s Bridge is a little unfair, since it is ultimately a good Domain idea. However, I also feel it could have easily been the blueprint for the Carnival.
If you remember, my problem with the Carnival was that a) it wasn’t scary, and b) its Darklord made no sense. It ends up less of a Domain and more of an interesting method of travel through the mists. Which is fine! It was the attempt to be a full Domain that brought it down in the end.
So if you’re really set on having the Carnival show up in your game, play it as the inverse of the Rider’s Bridge. Both allow transport to other Domains, but the Rider’s Bridge is primarily concerned with its Darklord, the Rider, while the Carnival is less absorbed with the idea of a Darklord and is primarily an eerie setting, not the source of eerie characters.
Sea of Sorrows and Various Isles of Dread
Darklord: Pietra van Riese
Horror: Terror on the high seas and ghost/zombie pirates.
Length: Weirdly enough… up to a full campaign, if you’re willing to work for it.
Cumulative Grade: A-
Now here’s a good one. I actually wish they had swapped the Sea of Sorrows and the Carnival – both have themes of travel between different Domains, but the Sea of Sorrows is objectively scarier and more robust… even with the limited description it gets in this book.
Anyway, it’s a great Domain. I like the idea that it essentially serves as the simultaneous “distant seas” for several other Domains. Again – it allows travel to other Domains without taking away either the risk or the terror of Ravenloft as a whole. It also has multiple other mini-Domains as well! And they’re pretty good too.
- Blaustein is the classic tale of Bluebeard, one of my favorite old fairy tales that hasn’t (yet) been adapted into a children’s cartoon. It has a lot of potential, or you could have it as a single, somewhat creepy stop on your party’s seafaring travels.
- Dominia is a vampiric insane asylum or something, which hits so many different horror beats that it’s bound to excite someone.
- The Isle of the Ravens is probably the weakest option. It just doesn’t have enough detail on why it exists, but hey… they only have like two sentences for each of these islands. Space is limited.
- The Lighthouse draws upon the classic horror of, well, lighthouses. A venerable component of maritime terror if ever there was one.
- And then there’s Vigilant’s Bluff, which is primarily a nightmare for wise-cracking rogues and bards who can’t stop mocking paladins to save their own life.
Again, this is a great Domain. You really could play a whole campaign here either by inventing your own islands, focusing on travel between existing Domains with coastlines, or even taking unrelated-but-still-spooky modules (like a lot of the stuff from Ghosts of Saltmarsh) and reinterpreting it for Ravenloft.
The Darklord, Pietra van Riese, is also fantastic. She’s got the inherent draw of being an undead pirate, and her presence really pulls together all these disparate mini-Domains. She’s the perfect villain for a campaign spanning a bunch of coastal locations off the Sea of Sorrows, and so it really is her quality that allows you to actually do a full-size campaign despite the lack of description for this little Domain.
Advice and Final Thoughts
I still wish they had made it into a full Domain of mini-Domains, but this format is genius in its own way. Pietra van Riese really does pull it all together.
Personally I probably wouldn’t run a full campaign here, but I could definitely see using it as a inter-Domain travel method at some point. It’s one of the few travel options that naturally maintains the tension of Ravenloft even while in transit. It’s also more interesting than wandering through the mists for a week.
The Shadowlands, or “Budget Darkon”
Horror: Dark fantasy and paladins everywhere (*shudder*).
Length: Just a one-off, but with the unique ability to adapt nearly any typical fantasy module, regardless of setting.
Cumulative Grade: B+
Firstly, I don’t actually think of this as being a budget Darkon. Secondly, this place is pretty impressive for using only like 10 lines of text and still ending up with a better Shadowlands than a certain other game I could name (it’s World of Warcraft and yes I’m still mad about it).
Anyway! The Shadowlands is an odd Domain. It doesn’t have too much to distinguish it besides “dubiously moral paladins” (and yet no Lord Soth mention? actually, has he shown up at all in this book?). But I think it’s that lack of distinguishing features itself which makes this Domain worthwhile. It can basically accept any Forgotten Realms, Grayhawk, or other normal fantasy setting’s content without difficulty. That’s great.
As for its Darklord? Well… it’s kind of weird that there are actually two sword Darklords. Again, what the hell did these swords do that was so bad? They’re swords!
But at least the Shadowlands has the excuse of being, again, like two paragraphs of content. The Carnival had a full several page spread to explain its Darklord and it didn’t really manage it. And hell, the sword still manages to be a more interesting and compelling villain than WoW’s Budget-Thanos. Again, I am still mad about this.
Advice and Final Thoughts
Warcraft anger aside, the Shadowlands is a good Domain just because it expands what you can port over to Ravenloft. So if you’re doing a campaign that spans multiple Domains, but you want to insert a non-Ravenloft fantasy adventure in there? The Shadowlands is your best bet, and that has a worth all its own.
Tovag – Be Careful or You’ll Put Your Eye Out
Darklord: Kas the Bloody Handed
Horror: Having to listen to your 2e obsessed DM talk about Vecna… again. Also dark fantasy and fascism!
Length: Really depends on how much you want to get into Vecna’s backstory.
Cumulative Grade: B
Oh hey Kas, there you are. Gotten any better at aiming for the heart? Or are you still out there chopping off hands and poking out eyes like it’ll really make a difference against a nigh-deific lich. What a loser.
Anyway, Vecna jokes aside… it’s a neat Domain. It has some Falkovnia vibes with its military dictatorship and forced conscription, as well as the unwinnable nature of the war.
What holds it back, ultimately, is Vecna. He’s such a recognizable character that there really isn’t any reason to go to Tovag or talk to Kas if your campaign doesn’t prominently feature Vecna in some capacity. But that’s fine – it has its purpose and it should do it well.
Advice and Final Thoughts
You could always bring Tovag in to the “greater Ravenloft campaign” as part of investigating how Darklords work. After all, Vecna was a Darklord for a time (I think) until he escaped. He’s also one of the only people ever to escape. So if you’re looking for Azalin Rex in order to save Darkon (or working for Azalin to try to find a way for him to completely escape the mists), Tovag could be a good stop on that quest.
Now, will Kas the Bloody Handed be happy if a bunch of adventures show up in his realm only to immediately start asking after Vecna? Of course not!
Vhage Agency, Winner of the “Most Dames” Award
Darklord: Flimira Vhage
Horror: Murder mysteries and memory loss.
Length: It could easily be the center of a whole campaign, but on its own it probably makes for a single encounter, or at most one session.
Cumulative Grade: B-
If you really want to do a classic film noire murder mystery… just use Eberron. Really set on the horror aspect? Add in the Dreaming Dark or some aberrations. Seems like it would end up being more robust.
It’s still a fine Domain, it just doesn’t have too much to offer. I also feel its monochrome gray filter is a bit silly, which goes against the Ravenloft grain just a bit, but I can also envisage a sufficiently skilled DM presenting that trait in a way that adds to the story and spookiness instead of taking away from it. Or you could double down on it and have Flimira’s inner monologue audible to players at all times (even if it coincidentally never reveals plot-relevant details).
Much more interesting is the Darklord herself. Flimira has a lot of potential. The theme of memory loss, added to the implication that she plays an intimate part in every case she takes on, is a great opportunity. You could go mundane and have her be corrupt, or you could take it further and develop a kind of Jekyll and Hyde scenario.
Advice and Final Thoughts
Again, I don’t think I’d ever use the Vhage Agency since I could just run an Eberron game if I really wanted a film noire style. But that doesn’t make it a bad Domain, especially since it doesn’t really get a lot of space to explain itself with.
Now, one other more esoteric option would be to deliberately make the Vhage Agency as silly and ridiculous as possible. After all, humor can be a good way to take a break from horror, allowing tension to build anew afterwards. So you could definitely have your players show up at this weirdly monochrome office, listen as the woman within mentally narrates their arrival, and then play out a minor little adventure there. It could be spooky, sure, but the comedy of it could help dial things back so the horror later on doesn’t become overwhelming.
And done! There are other micro-Domains in here, of course, but most are more like aesthetic suggestions than anything else. Which is fine! Many of them are really good starting points for inspiration. Ghastria is a nifty idea as long as literally no one in the party has even heard of The Picture of Dorian Grey. Klorr is a truly trippy experience, which isn’t always a bad thing. Markovia, Niranjan, Odaire, Souragne, Zherisia… all of them are great examples of a specific theming or atmosphere. And Risibilos has a puppet version of Strahd – what more could you want?
Anyway, thanks for reading this little Halloween exercise. I hope it was informative or at least enjoyable. I really do love Van Richten’s Guide to Ravenloft. I think WotC did a great job with the atmosphere, and with balancing accessibility and inclusivity with content.
It’s a great collection, and will hopefully see more people get into Ravenloft. Which is, itself, a great setting. I’m also relatively happy with the changes to established lore that they’ve made – even if I question a few decisions, all of them are smart and well-made choices.
Happy Halloween everyone!
And, as always, let me know what you think!